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Mon/Fayette Expressway, Southern beltway must wait for highway money

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Passage of the state transportation bill late last year changed the road map for infrastructure projects across the commonwealth.

And the Mon/Fayette Expressway will have to wait in line behind the Southern Beltway, at least for now.

The Mon Valley Progress Council has advocated for completion of the expressway since its conception in the mid-1960s and has thrown its support behind the Southern Beltway since it was conceived in the early 1990s, Executive Director Joe Kirk noted during a council board meeting Friday.

Kirk said, “2014 is a window of opportunity for this project that we may not see for this project in a decade or more.”

The transportation bill passed and signed into law in November “represents the first new revenue for transportation in general and for money dedicated to the turnpike commission,” Kirk said.

It continues revenue dedicated to the two area projects – based on a percentage of the increase in the oil franchise tax – included in previous transportation bills.

State Act 89 provides gradual relief from Act 44 of 2007, which requires the turnpike commission to provide $450 million annually to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. By year eight of the transportation bill, that amount will dwindle to $50 million annually.

In addition, in year five, the turnpike will receive $86 million that can be bonded for roughly $1 billion to pay for the beltway and expressway, Kirk noted.

In January, the commission awarded contracts for the 12-mile, $550 million section of the beltway that will connect Route 22 with Interstate 79.

“The 22-to-79 section is the next section we are advancing,” said Carl DeFabo, turnpike commission spokesman. “That is what we are focusing all of our energies and funding on.”

DeFabo said once the Southern Beltway is built, the commission will decide its next step regarding the bulk of the expressway and the Southern Beltway section connecting I-79 and the expressway section near Finleyville.

“The turnpike commission intends to honor our commitment to continue to develop the Mon/Fayette and Southern Beltway as the money becomes available,” DeFabo said.

While the progress council supports completion of the beltway, Kirk said the agency views advancement of the expressway north of Route 51 as being vital, even as it is potentially advanced through Allegheny County.

Kirk said that historically, Valley residents have lived here and worked in Allegheny County. With completion of the expressway north, for example, a Donora resident working at the Duquesne Industrial Park could commute in less than 20 minutes, Kirk said.

Aside from advancing the Valley's role as a bedroom community, a company located in the Alta Vista business park in Fallowfield Township could shorten delivery time and increase supply chain with advancement of the expressway north, Kirk said.

Six Allegheny County municipalities have approved resolutions calling on the turnpike commission to develop by the year's end a financing and construction schedule for key segments of the expressway north of Route 51. The municipalities comprise: Monroeville, Penn Hills, McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Dravosburg and North Versailles.

On Friday, the progress council board approved a similar resolution, which will be forwarded to the turnpike commission.

Last fall, Kirk attended a meeting in Harrisburg for a briefing on an alternative he developed for advancing the expressway.

Kirk's alternative involves building the expressway from Route 51 to Monroeville as a toll highway, extending the Martin Luther King Busway east from Swissvale to East Pittsburgh and building a parking garage for drivers who would park and take buses into Pittsburgh.

Kirk estimates the alternative would cost roughly half the approximate $4 billion price of the proposed expressway section into Pittsburgh and Monroeville.

“Our alternative meets the core objectives of the expressway project in terms of access to industrial sites, access to communities and potentially reducing congestion on the Parkway East,” Kirk said.

Kirk said advancing the expressway in the next decade will depend upon the turnpike's willingness to embrace a combination of public and private money.

“It has been discussed in the past,” DeFabo said. “The turnpike commission is revisiting public-private partnerships for the Mon/Fayette Expressway. It's just in the preliminary discussion stage.”